Road to Haines
A cold mist blows over the tips of the pine trees. It coats Eddie's anorak and soaks his boots. He stands shaking for an hour. A Winnebago passes him. It pulls over and stops on the shoulder. Pink lace curtains flap from its tiny rear window. They must be lost, Eddie figures. Maybe they're stopping for lunch.
The camper honks. A fleshy, sleeveless arm waves to him from the cab.
“This here the road to Haines?” the driver calls to him.
“Yeah,” Eddie says.
“Well, get in!” she says. “We're not going to bite you!”
A side door swings open. Eddie climbs up. He sits down in a plush velvet chair. He's surrounded by beige and brown carpet and paneling, cabinets and drawers. He glances over his shoulder. A low toilet peeks from behind a very small door.
Two elderly women smile at him from the front seats. A huge, white, plastic crucifix hangs from the rear view mirror. The smell of perfume overwhelms him.
“You look like you need a nice glass of iced tea,” the passenger says. She gets up and waddles past him to the tiny kitchenette.
“Yes sir,” the driver says. She turns the camper back out onto the highway. “You sure look like you've been out here a while.”
Eddie sits in his soft armchair. Gripping the counter with one hand, the elderly passenger hands him an iced tea, then a paper plate filled with oreo cookies.
“No fancy china, sorry,” she says; then she pulls herself back up into her seat.
“I'm Rosemarie. Corinne here is my co-pilot,” the driver says.
Rosemarie brushes back a mane of white hair. She holds a camcorder in her lap with one hand; the other pins a dog-eared book, the Alaska Highway Milepost, against the steering wheel. She cranes her neck to squint at maps she's ripped out of a book and taped to the ceiling.
“How far are you going?” she asks.
“Haines Junction,” he says. “I'm meeting a friend there.”
“Well,” Rosemarie says, flipping through the pages of the Milepost. “We're going to Haines, but a little slowly. So any old time you want to jump out and see if you can find a faster ride, you just let us know.”
“How about some home made popcorn?” Corinne asks.
“Or I can make some nachos, if you like them. You like nachos?”
Eddie looks out through the lace curtains. The dark forest rolls slowly by.
“Oh, yeah,” he says. “Nachos would be great.”
Hours pass. The sky darkens. Sheets of cold rain sweep against the windshield. Outside the soaked tundra shimmers, silver and green, punctuated by angry dead trees. Rosemarie turns the heat up. She tells Eddie about the little town in Illinois they're from, the church where they run the youth program, the axle they broke in Alberta.
“When that axle broke, we had half a mind just to turn around right there, didn't we Corinne?”
“Oh, yes,” Corinne says.
“But like I said, imagine what the pioneers would have done. Would they have turned around and gone home?”
“It's like I always say, when life gives you lemons…”
“You make lemonade,” Corinne says quickly.
Rosemarie takes a long look at Eddie through the rear view mirror. Eddie stops trying to stuff strands of oily hair up under his baseball cap. He scratches the thick stubble on his neck. He looks down at his hands; his nails are black. When he looks up again Rosemarie's eyes are back on the road.
“Were you roughnecking up here?” she asks.
“She wants to know if you were working on the pipeline,” Corinne says.
“Who, me? No.”
“No, nothing like that.”
“Canneries? You working the canneries?”
Eddie starts scratching again, this time all over.
“I was in Anchorage. I was there for a month.”
“Beautiful town, Anchorage.”
“I'm going to get work, as soon as I hook up with my friend. She's coming up to meet me, up from Colorado.”
“That's some drive,” Rosemarie says.
“I think I've got some work lined up for us, down the panhandle.”
“Supposed to be really something down there.”
“Yeah, it's really beautiful,” Eddie says. He brushes salt off his drying anorak. It leaves white flecks on the upholstery. “At least I hear it is. I hear there's lots of work down there, this time of year. Canneries, tourist stuff. You name it.”
The snacks keep coming: corn chips and pretzels and soda. Eddie starts dozing. He half-dreams, half remembers calling Kate from the pay phone on Fourth Avenue; only in the dream he's together, standing erect. His voice is low, confident. Everything's okay now. He's got a plan. She's coming for sure.
Eddie wakes up to an oncoming horn. Rosemarie pulls the camper back into her lane.
“Do you know how they built this highway?” Eddie says, fighting to wake up.
“I can't imagine,” Rosemarie says. She rubs her eyes and squints at the maps. Corinne snores by her side.
“I'm reading a book about it. It was the beginning of the war. The Japanese took a couple of Aleutian Islands. So we built this highway. So we could ship supplies up. So we could counterattack. In the Aleutians.”
“You don't say.”
“Yeah. But it was a black division, from Alabama. They had to build the highway. They got stuck out here in little canvas tents. Freezing cold. They worked through the winter. All hand tools. They built bridges, cut embankments. They finished a year ahead of schedule.”
“Well now, ain't that something.”
“What's that?” Corinne asks suddenly.
“Eddie's telling us about a book he's reading, about the Negroes who built this here highway,” she says.
“The negroes!” Rosemarie yells. “They built the highway!”
Tok appears suddenly--first cabins, then little houses, then stores.
Rosemarie drives the camper down a strip of one-story buildings. Eddie peers through the curtains at glowing beer signs in the windows of the stores. Labatts, Molson, Anchor Steam, Budweiser. Rosemarie pulls into a gas station. A large woodcarved lumberjack waves from the porch. Taped to his axe, a sign reads 'Miller 12 pack $8.99.'
“This is the place!” she yells. “We fill the tank, they let us camp out back for free!”
Rosemarie climbs down from the drivers seat and enters the store, leaving Eddie and Corinne alone in the camper.
“Ain't she something,” Corinne says.
“Yes she is,” Eddie says.
“Her chiropractor told her don't do it. Said she couldn't take it. She broke her neck, you see. Four summers ago. In the accident. Broke her dang neck.”
“Wow,” Eddie says. “She's lucky.”
“Hardly,” Corinne says. “She's hardly that.”
“The lord giveth and the lord taketh away. It's not for us to question why.”
Rosemarie reappears. She's smiling.
“Good news!” she says as she pulls herself up into the drivers seat. “There's room out back, one more spot for a camper. And the man says you can set up your tent right back behind there. You have a tent in that backpack of yours, don't you?”
Eddie peers out at a sea of industrial waste scattered under the trees.
“Well, we turn in early. We're just a couple of old ladies. I guess we'll see you in the morning. Do you want to ride with us in the morning?”
“Yeah, that would be great,” Eddie says. “Thanks.” He grabs his backpack and climbs down, closing the screen door behind him.
Eddie wakes up to the wild buzz of camper generators. He lies in the tent for a while, trying to remember what he told Kate. It was two weeks ago. He was pretty hammered. He thinks he convinced her he was sober. She was pretty sure she was coming up. He remembers telling her he has jobs lined up, places to stay. In the fall they could work their way back down land, follow the coast. Maybe get home by Christmas.
Eddie climbs out of his tent, set up between two rusting, abandoned meat freezers. He gathers his beer cans and tucks them behind one of the freezers. Rosemarie's camper sits nearby, the lace curtains drawn shut. He walks to the general store, buys a cup of coffee, and returns to his tentsite.
He perches himself on top of one of the freezers and re-enters his book. While the troops fight through the winter to finish the highway, a team of pilots stationed on a makeshift airbase on the Aleutian Islands makes raids on the Japanese positions. The weather's terrible, their weaponry is outdated and they have few supplies. The isolation starts to get to the pilots. They turn violent, murder each other, have nervous breakdowns. They fight each other for the privilege of flying suicide missions.
Eddie gets up for another cup of coffee. Half way across the parking lot he hears "Hey! Hey you!" He turns to face a creased old man, grinning in his pajamas.
"You, now, son, you want some coffee? C'mere with me. I'll get you some coffee.”
He waves Eddie toward his Winnebago, a smaller model than Rosemary's.
"C'mon now, I won't bite you. You just come on over here."
Eddie follows him into the compact vehicle. He fits himself into a tiny kitchen booth across from the man. A sweet red-haired woman in a nightgown squints through huge glasses. She puts down a pot of coffee. The old man fills Eddie's cup, then his own.
“That's my wife Barbara,” the man says. “I'm Eugene.”
Eddie takes a sip and winces. "Wow,” he says. “That's some coffee."
“We drove up here from Bakersfield,” Eugene says.
“That's a long ways,” Eddie says.
“Drove all the way up, far as we could. Drove all the way up to see that big old pipeline, up where the road ends.”
“That must have been something,” Eddie says.
“That ain't nothing,” Eugene says. “Nothing but a load of crap. Then goddamn oil companies think they got it all figured out. They don't know nothing.”
“You want some more coffee, hon?” Barbara asks Eddie.
“My old man worked 20 years for the Standard refinery up there on the north slope. Didn't have no pipeline then. Twenty years, never missed a day sick. One day a jack came down, smashed his hand flat. They let him go that day. No pension. Nothing.”
Somebody bangs on the screen door.
"That's my hitchiker," Rosemarie calls in to Barbara. "You can't have him."
Barbara laughs. "Well, if you're ever in Bakersfield," Eugene says, "be sure to stop on by. We're in the trailer parked behind the Bible Baptist Church."
Rosemarie twists her head around to squint at the new map she's taped to the ceiling.
“Haines Junction,” Rosemarie says. “Here we come.”
“Almost Haines,” Eddie says. His head is throbbing.
“Now, did you say you're going to Haines, or Haines Junction?” Corinne asks.
“I'm going to Haines,” Eddie says. “I think. I'm meeting her in Haines.”
“Now I would have sworn you said Haines Junction,” Corinne says.
“Haines, Haines Junction,” Rosemarie says. “Can't be much distance from one to another. Do you need more air conditioning back there? Do you need me to turn up the air conditioner?”
“Maybe you need something to drink,” Corinne says, not turning. “Like some water.”
“I'm okay, thanks.”
“You know now, if we're going to slow for you, you can get another ride. If you have to get to where you're going in a hurry.”
“Thanks,” he says.
“Would you like some chips? Is it too early?”
“No, not at all, thanks. I'm grateful for the ride.”
Corinne's silent, staring ahead at the long caravan of winnebagoes winding their way out of Tok
“Because we sure enjoy the company,” Rosemarie continues. “It sure is nice of you to keep a couple of old ladies company.”
“Chips would be great, thanks,” Eddie says. “Never too early for chips.”
In the middle of a treeless wilderness, signs and flags mark the approach of Canadian customs. Rosemarie starts rubbing her neck.
“Now this should only take a minute,” Rosemarie says.
“Unless, of course, someone's carrying drugs,” Corinne adds.
“Hello,” the Mountie says as they pull up.
“Just a couple of old ladies out for a drive, officer!” Rosemarie says.
The Mountie leans in Rosemarie's window and peers at Eddie's backpack, then directly at Eddie.
“You folks all got a driver's license?” The Mountie asks. His voice is deep but his face is young, covered in red freckles.
“Hand him your driver's license, Eddie.”
“I've got a passport.”
The Mountie glances at the pack again. “No driver's license?”
“I don't drive.”
“Huh,” Corinne says, staring straight ahead.
“You don't drive?” the Mountie asks. “You've never driven?”
“No,” Eddie says, scratching. “I'm a lousy driver.”
“How do you know if you've never driven?”
Eddie shrugs. Rosemarie and Corinne tuck their licenses back into their handbags.
The Mountie glances at the passport and hands it back in to Eddie.
“You have a great visit to Canada,” he says to Rosemarie.
They drive along a winding river. Dark clouds cling to the top of stark mountains. At six o'clock, Rosemarie pulls over, next to a beautiful glacial lake shining through the windshield.
“Let's stop for dinner, gang,” she says. “We can push on to Haines Junction after dinner. This spot here's just a little too perfect not to have dinner.”
Corinne silently prepares a tuna casserole, potato chips and orange soda. She hasn't spoken all day. Eddie stares out at the lake, then jumps up to help unfold the little dining table. Moving much more slowly, Rosemarie reaches into a drawer for forks and knives.
“Let me help you set the table,” Eddie says.
“No sir. You're our guest here,” she says, swiveling her head from side to side and grimacing. “Be it ever so humble.”
They sit down around the table. Corinne and Rosemarie hold hands and reach for Eddie's. Their hands are clean and weightless. Eddie realizes how grimy he must feel, how badly he must smell. They don't seem to notice.
Rosemarie takes a deep breath. “Dear lord,” she begins, “we thank you for this wonderful day and for seeing us through another day's journey in safety. We thank you for helping me with my neck, from keeping it from going out again. We thank you for keeping Corinne's bum leg from swelling up. Thank you, lord, for keeping the generator running. Thank you for the new axle which is just humming right along. We thank you for the road conditions, much better, I'd say, than yesterday, but nobody's complaining about yesterday. And dear lord, I'm sorry and I'm praying for that squirrel I pegged.
“Lord, I thank you for taking Marty back into your heart and for sending him once to me, to enrich my life. And dear lord…”
She grips Eddie's sweat-soaked hand a little harder.
“…we thank you, last and not least, for bringing this young man into our lives, and for the friendship and comfort he's providing to us, and we hope too that you help us to help him find his way, to Haines Junction, or Haines. And dear lord, we hope you help him find his friend, and himself, and a purpose for this journey he's on.”
“Amen,” Corinne says.
Eddie bites into a spoonful of casserole. “Was Marty your husband?” he asks.
“Marty was my boy,” Rosemarie answers.
They chew in silence for a while.
“She must be very brave,” Rosemarie says.
“You're friend you're meeting. Coming up here, all that way, by herself. That's some long journey for a young lady, all by herself. She must be very brave.”
“Here,” Rosemarie smiles, passing a red plastic bowl. “Have some more chips.”
In the middle of Haines Junction there's a huge signboard with mileage signs and arrows pointing to every possible destination. Anchorage, New York, Quebec, Moscow, Buenos Aries. The light fades behind distant blue mountains. They stare up at all the signs.
“So is it Haines or Haines Junction?” Rosemarie asks Eddie. She's holding her head with both hands and wincing.
“It's Haines, I think,” Eddie says, staring at the signpost for Haines. “I think I said I would meet her in Haines.”
“Well, we're going to drive down a little farther tonight, toward Haines. We're just going to camp on the side of the road. We'll find a good spot where you can pitch your tent. Then in the morning, we'll make sure to get you to Haines to meet your friend.”
Rosemarie pulls over in a gravel turnoff boxed in by huge granite peaks.
Eddie climbs up a little hill, just out of the sight of the camper, and pitches his tent. He rolls out his sleeping bag and lies down to read a last chapter of the book in the fading light. Supplied by land, from the highway, and by sea, the U.S. mounts its first amphibious assault of the war, against the Japanese soldiers on Kiska Island. The landing craft crashes into coral reefs a thousand feet from shore, drowning hundreds of men. The first soldiers to make the beach are run over by their own tanks. The men fight through snow and rain, inch by inch, to take the island. A hundred have their feet amputated for frostbite. The last group of Japanese soldiers makes a surprise bayonet charge into the field hospital. They kill a dozen amputees; then pull grenades out and blow themselves up.
It's too dark to read any more. Eddie lies still in the tent. The highway builders spin into his head, steam blowing from their nostrils, driving pickaxes into ice and dirt. The Aleutian pilots, the Kiska marines, Eugene's dad. They had to come up here, he thinks. They did what they had to do.
He hears a lone car pass somewhere out in the woods, on the distant highway, the road to Haines. What if it's Kate? What if she's driving back and forth between Haines and Haines Junction, looking for him? What if they came this close and couldn't find each other?
A shiver passes through him. Kate's not going to be there, he thinks. She didn't sound convinced at all. She always knew when he was drunk. She wasn't going to drive two thousand miles up here for him.
It's the first night Eddie's been without a drink since he can remember. The screams of strange insects and birds fill the woods. He starts twitching uncontrollably--first his hands and feet, then his entire body.
“Eddie!” he hears, from the woods.
With a flashlight Eddie finds his way back down to the camper. Corinne's silhouette stands at the screen door. She's in her nightgown and robe, her hair in curlers, rubbing her knee with her hand.
“It's Rosemarie,” Corinne says. “She needs you.”
Eddie climbs in. Rosemarie sits perfectly still in the armchair Eddie's occupied for the past few days. Her eyes are closed and she's barefoot, in a long white gown.
“I need you to do something for me,” Rosemarie says. Her eyelids flutter. She presses them shut. “Can you do something for me?”
“Sure, Rosemarie. What do you need me to do?”
“I need you to set my neck. I'll show you how. Can you do it?”
Eddie looks over at Corinne, who retreats to her passenger seat, ringing her hands.
“I'm not strong enough,” Corinne whispers. “I tried. I just can't.”
“I need you to come stand behind me,” Rosemarie says. Eddie obeys.
“Now I need you to put your arm around my head, like so.”
She guides his hands to hold her in a gentle headlock position. Her chin rests inside his elbow. Her hands hold tightly to his forearm.
“Now I need you to place your other hand against the base of my skull, like this.”
She guides Eddie's shaking left hand to the back of her head, against the smooth ripples of her hair.
“Now, I need you to jerk my head up, real hard, as hard and as fast as you can.”
“I can't do that,” Eddie says.
“You can. Yes, you can. You have to.”
Eddie takes a deep breath. Still shuddering, he feels a sudden surge. He snaps Rosemarie's head up as hard as he can. There's a loud crack, then a crunching sound.
He releases her. He's sure that he broke her neck.
Rosemarie sits still for a moment, then runs a hand up to reposition her hair on her shoulders. She rolls her neck around like she'd just woken up from a long nap.
She beams up at Eddie.
“That will do it, Eddie. God bless you, and good night.”
Her smell is all around him now. She smells so sweet, Eddie thinks. Like flowers.